Transportation chief calls Amtrak lapses 'unacceptable'

Calling the service on the Amtrak-operated MARC Penn Line "unacceptable," Maryland's top transportation official demanded that the national passenger railroad conduct a "top to bottom review" of its MARC operations to prevent a recurrence of lapses that have plagued the service in recent weeks.

The statement by Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley came the day after she was aboard a northbound Penn Line train that overshot a scheduled stop at the MARC station in Odenton — forcing passengers to continue to the BWI Airport station to catch a southbound train back to their destination. The incident came a week after passengers on the same train, No. 538, were stranded for two hours in sweltering heat on the tracks near Cheverly.

Amtrak, which operates the Penn Line under contract with the state, apologized to MARC passengers for the Monday night incident at Odenton –- as it did the week before after the so-called "hell train" incident. A spokesman for Amtrak also expressed regret that passengers were initially given a false explanation of why the station was skipped.

In a message to MARC customers, Swaim-Staley said she had "experienced firsthand the severe frustration of my fellow passengers at the failure of Amtrak to carry out even this very basic task of stopping at a scheduled station."

She and Maryland Transit Administration chief Ralign T. Wells were taking the train to talk with riders when passengers realized that something was wrong.

"Someone literally yelled, 'Mr. Wells, your train just went past the station,' and Ralign and I looked at each other in complete dismay," Swaim-Staley said. She said she immediately called Amtrak President Joseph Boardman from her cell phone, and that he ordered that the next possible Acela train stop at BWI station to take the passengers back to Odenton.

According to Swaim-Staley, Boardman told her that crew members were unfamiliar with the Penn Line because they were brought in to replace regulars tied up in the investigation into last week's incident.

Swaim-Staley noted that two other Penn Line trains were delayed for more than an hour each Monday night because of mechanical problems with equipment Amtrak is under contract to maintain. She said she has been in touch with Amtrak's top management to demand a "full accounting."

"It is understood that machines, and the equipment that supports them, will break down at times. However, these most recent incidents reflect a failure of Amtrak rather than simply the failure of equipment," Swaim-Staley said. "The system Amtrak has in place to operate MARC is proving to be inadequate. I am asking Amtrak to conduct a top to bottom review of its operation of MARC and to aggressively initiate the changes necessary to see that similar incidents do not occur again."

She said her statement did not address the state's relationship with CSX, operator of the Camden and Brunswick lines, because the problems on those lines have not been as prevalent.

The secretary's statement came after Boardman released a statement in which he apologized to the more than 150 passengers aboard Train 538 who were inconvenienced by the missed stop.

Boardman said the incident is being reviewed but the early indication is that "the engineer began to slow the train too late and as a result continued past the Odenton station by about three car lengths before coming to a stop." He said the train could not back into the station because another train was coming up behind it.

Amtrak said Odenton-bound passengers were transferred to an Acela Express that made unscheduled stops at BWI and Odenton to pick them up and drop them off. The railroad, which operates the Penn Line under contract with the Maryland Transit Administration, estimated the delay at 30 minutes. The Amtrak chief and other managers appeared at the Odenton station Tuesday morning to apologize to commuters in person.

Several MARC riders reported that the train crew's first reaction was to blame track conditions rather than engineer error. Kevin Cup of Severn, who said he was sitting in the lead passenger car of the train that overshot the station, said regular passengers noticed that the train was approaching Odenton too fast.

"Just before we passed the station (at full speed), the train's brakes were applied sharply and very briefly (as if the engineer tried too late to make the station stop in time)," Culp wrote in an e-mail. "The brakes were immediately released and we came to what I can only describe as a stop under 'normal' braking about 1 mile north of the station. The train sat there idle for about 2-3 minutes until the trip resumed north. A conductor apologized and indeed blamed the missed stop on 'rail conditions.'"

Culp, like other riders, found the explanation unsatisfactory.

"What makes me apoplectic is the manner in which these things are handled," he wrote. "Instead of just telling us the truth (the engineer made a mistake; we're really sorry; please get on the next southbound train) they make up these fantastical stories and treat us with disdain, condescension, and sanctimony."

Steve Kulm, an Amtrak spokesman, acknowledged that the crew had given passengers wrong" information.

"They should not have done that," he said. "They should not have provided that reasoning or cause." He said the railroad will investigate how the false account came to be given to passengers, as well as the incident itself.

Kulm declined to say whether the engineer was on the job or whether disciplinary action had been taken. "He is being handled appropriately," Kulm said.

The spokesman said it is not a common occurrence for a train to overshoot a station. "It's not a good event. It should not have happened," he said.

Some MARC riders were looking for more than an apology.

"The relationship between MARC and Amtrak needs to be re-evaluated," said Penn Line rider Eric Luebehusen. "It needs to be pointed out at the highest level that MARC passengers are not to be treated as second fiddle to their Amtrak counterparts. Amtrak needs to stop simply sending trains around disabled MARC trains to maintain its own on-time agenda."

Kulm agreed that the railroad has to improve its MARC service. "We've got issues when it comes to MARC we need to fix and improve," he said. "Amtrak is owning up to our problems and the things that we failed at."

Swaim-Staley said she has been in almost constant contact with Boardman since last week's stranding incident and that the Amtrak executive has been receptive to her concerns. "We have the attention of high levels at Amtrak, and we're not going to let up until we see an improvement," she said.

But the secretary conceded that the state has little leverage except to cajole a contractor that receives $40 million a year to operate the Penn Line. She said a lawsuit would be counterproductive because the state wants to continue to operate commuter service on lines owned by Amtrak and CSX.

"We don't have a lot of options because states don't tend to own their own rail lines," she said.

The Odenton incident was one of many problems reported on the MARC system Monday, including malfunctioning traffic signals and heat-related track problems on the Camden and Brunswick lines.

Owens said the two late Penn Line trains were both seriously late — one by an hour and the other almost two hours — because of mechanical problems. The last train, No. 446 scheduled to leave Union Station at 10:30 p.m., did not depart until nearly 12:30 a.m. because an air compressor on an electric locomotive malfunctioned, Kulm said.

The series of incidents this week and last will be on the agenda today when Swaim-Staley and Wells meet with members of the MARC Riders Advisory Council in Washington — little more than a week after the "hell train" incident left almost 1,000 passengers sweltering on the tracks.

The meeting, which is open to the public, is set for 4 p.m. in Room 337 of the Hall of the States Building, 400 N. Capitol St., near Union Station.

The advisory council's chairman, Rafi Guroian, said the group had invited Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is sending Swaim-Staley to represent him. Guroian said council members plan to press Swaim-Staley to clarify concerns about what happened last week and to address ways that MARC can better communicate with riders. Guroian said Boardman is also expected to attend.

"The meeting will likely be quite lively, given the cast of characters that will be there and some of the firsthand experiences many of our members had on that train," Guroian wrote.

Swaim-Staley and Wells have been regular riders on MARC since last week's incident. After today's meeting they, along with Boardman, are expected to meet with passengers at Union Station.

MARC service became an issue in this year's gubernatorial race when former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. issued a statement last week criticizing O'Malley's appointees, Swaim-Staley and Wells, for not having met with the advisory council since taking their posts last year.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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